Timberwolves

Mike Conley Is Putting Together His Best Season In Year 16

Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In a 2015 Grantland interview, Jonathan Abrams asked Mike Conley Sr. what the net big goal for his son and himself was at the time. “The big thing for me and Mike right now is getting rid of the ‘underrated’ tag and calling him what he is — one of the top point guards in the country.”

Fast forward eight years, and Mike Conley Jr. is having arguably the best season of his career. Playing point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 16-year-old vet is shooting the ball more efficiently than at any time in his career, playing incredible defense, and has established himself as a crucial leader for the Wolves team hoping to make a deep playoff run this season.

All this is to say Mike Conley Jr. is no longer underrated, especially to Wolves fans who see the value every night.

Undersized point guards don’t have career-best shooting at age 36. At 6’0”, the expectation for Conley should be for his percentages to start to trail off, especially because he has played 35,755 minutes of basketball in his career (regular season plus playoffs). With that much play time over 16 years. It would be fair for Conley to start having a dip in production or at least a little less lift in his jump shot.

Surprisingly, Conley is shooting a career-best from the field at 52% and a career-high 44.7% from distance throughout the first 11 games of the 2023-24 season. All this while being a perfect 11/11 from the free throw line. While it’s unfair to expect him to maintain these percentages all season, certain trends may hint at Conley’s continued success.

The clip below highlights Conley’s most dangerous offense weapon. Conley comes off a pick-and-roll, dives to the basket, and flips up a right-handed (off-hand) floater. It freezes the defense because he uses the same motion to throw lobs to Rudy Gobert. Fearing the lob, the defender boxes Gobert out instead of contesting the shot, which results in an easy two points for Conley.

Conley has been excellent when shooting within the flow of the offense this season, and that should continue. This season, 27% of Conley’s shots have come without him taking a dribble. That could indicate that Conley is benefiting from the improved passing from Anthony Edwards. It also highlights the gravity that Edwards is starting to harness to pull defenders to him on offense.

NBA.com’s metrics indicate that 77.4% of Conley’s attempts have been considered “open” or “wide open,” further proving that he should continue to thrive shooting the ball. Diving even further, 51.2% of Conley’s shot attempts have come with a defender at least six feet away. He’s shooting 53.5% overall in those situations. With weapons like Edwards and Towns commanding extra attention, it’s unlikely that Conley will see a drop in these wide-open situations, further cementing why his efficiency will remain high.

Those types of clean shot attempts, coupled with Conley being able to catch and shoot the ball in the flow of the offense, suggest that his impeccable shooting should continue. Below is one example of the wide-open shot Conley has benefited from this season.

In addition to Conley’s lights-out shooting, he’s providing excellent ball security. Sporting a career-best 0.6 turnovers per game, he has been superb at initiating and being a caretaker of the offense. Conley’s low turnover number has resulted in Conley having an 8 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season. He’s still moving the ball at a high level, proven by his 24.3% assist percentage (amount of possessions that end in an assisted basket).

The statistics above meet the eye test. The Timberwolves still use Conley to set up the initial offensive movement with the starters before rotating to the corner or wing after passing the ball. Chris Finch’s offense appears to be the perfect fit for the veteran guard. As a result, Conley has a 108.8 offensive rating (amount of points a player would score per 100 possessions) and a plus-6.4 net rating (the difference between offensive and defensive rating). Conley below shows off his playmaking, turning the aforementioned floater into a Gobert lob.

On the defensive side of the ball, Conley’s traditional statistics would suggest he’s falling off. He’s had a career-low of 0.8 steals and 0.1 blocks per game. But those counting stats don’t tell the whole story.

Conley’s defensive rating is a stellar 102.5, the fifth-best defensive rating in the league among players who play 25 minutes or more per game. Defensive rating is not the most reliable statistic, but it’s telling that Conley rates higher than other Wolves starters like Rudy Gobert 105.2 and Anthony Edwards 105.0.

While the drop off of 2.5 in defensive rating doesn’t seem like much, it would be the difference between the Cleveland Cavaliers’ top-ranked 2022-23 defense (109.9) and the Phoenix Suns (112.3), who are seventh-best. That suggests Conley could be the common factor in much of Minnesota’s defensive success spreading across starters and bench units.

Conley’s impact often shows up more in film than in gameplay. In the clip below, you can see one example of how Conley can affect the game. The ball-handler brings the ball up to initiate the offense with a pick-and-roll; Conley recognizes that and can get “narrow” to squeeze around the pick and stay with his assignment.

Below is an example of Conley taking a bump, narrowing his body, fighting to stay above a screen, and then contesting a shot.

Conley’s ability to squeeze around screens is truly an art form he has developed. It prevents the ball-handler from being able to drive after the pick. Conley also has the savviness to recognize when a screen is set too close, or the screener isn’t set.

In the clip below, you can see another example of Conley on defense. He feels the big setting the screen and recognizes that the big is too close and not set, which results in Conley falling and flailing to draw the illegal screen. The combination of being able to shoot around screens and take advantage of bigs trying to prevent a good pick-and-roll often blows up a team’s play.

Below is an odd example of Conley’s ability to slip past a screen and get an easy steal.

At 36 years young, Mike Conley Jr. is by no means underrated to Timberwolves fans. However, what may be under-appreciated is how well he has been playing through Minnesota’s 8-3 start this season. His shooting has been incredible, his ball security has been masterful, and his defense has been a tone-setter. Conley has cemented his place in the Wolves rotation and culture. He’s even earned himself a new nickname courtesy of Anthony Edwards, “Bite-Bite.”

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Photo Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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